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Anti-strike Bill goes too far, Bishop Seeley argues

24 February 2023


Ambulance drivers, outside St Thomas’ Hospital, London, among medical staff taking industrial action in England and Wales over pay and staffing levels

Ambulance drivers, outside St Thomas’ Hospital, London, among medical staff taking industrial action in England and Wales over pay and staffing levels

THE Government’s plans to curb strike action by workers in essential services go too far, the Bishop of St Edmundsbury & Ipswich, the Rt Revd Martin Seeley, has told the House of Lords.

“Without full recourse to strike action as the last resort, far from it creating a reasonable balance between those involved, the balance of power seems to be tipped too far in one direction,” he said on Tuesday in a debate on the Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill. “This is about dignity of work and the common good, for the flourishing of the whole of society.

“For the good functioning of society, it is essential that all workers have a legitimate and peaceful means to seek redress against pay and conditions that leave them unable to make ends meet. Surely, this applies even more to those who provide essential services in the public sector, where discussions about fair remuneration can be dismissed, often by the language of limiting government expenditure.”

Bishop Seeley accepted that negotiations should be conducted in good faith by both sides, but expressed concern that, in the current disputes, each side accused the other of intransigence.

The Bill, in its current form, created more problems than it sought to solve, he said. It opened up “multiple ambiguities”, including the expansion of ministerial powers, which could be exercised at very short notice, using statutory instruments, to set levels of service during public-service strikes. A lack of detail would give the Secretary of State “full rein on this in secondary legislation, seemingly with little opportunity for proper consultation”.

The Bishop was also concerned about “significant and vague infringement” of protections for unions and workers. Employers would be able to sue unions if they did not take “reasonable steps” to ensure that their members complied with a minimum-service work notice, and it removed workers’ protection from unfair dismissal on grounds of participation in a strike action contrary to a work notice. It was also unclear which workers could be subjected to the Bill’s measures.

“I believe these proposals do more harm than good,” he said.

In his speech opening the debate, Lord Callanan, a junior minister in the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero, said that while the Government “firmly believed” that the right to strike was important, “recent industrial action has highlighted the disproportionate impacts that strikes can have on the public. We need to be able to have confidence that when strikes occur, people’s lives and livelihoods are not put at undue risk.”

The Bill, he said, established a legal mechanism to implement minimum service levels during strikes in six key sectors: health, fire and rescue, education, transport, border security, and the decommissioning of nuclear installations and management of radioactive waste.

He continued: “This legislation is not about sacking workers. . . It is about protecting people’s lives and livelihoods by enabling minimum service levels to be applied during strikes.”

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